The state agency responsible for protecting the safety and welfare of Maine children is falling short of the national standard for preventing repeat cases of abuse and neglect, according to a new report.

And it’s getting worse.

The rate at which children in Maine experience recurring maltreatment is twice the national average. The Office of Child and Family Services adequately identified risk and safety concerns in half the cases reviewed, but it adequately addressed and monitored risks only 26% of the time.

That data is contained in an annual service and progress report – an internal review of randomly selected cases conducted annually by the Department of Health and Human Services – that was posted online late last month.

It comes as OCFS, the agency that oversees child protective services, is under intense scrutiny by lawmakers over its involvement in cases that have resulted in the deaths of children, including 3-year-old Makinzlee Handrahan in Edgecomb last Christmas.

An affidavit supporting the arrest of Tyler Witham-Jordan, who was dating Handrahan’s mother, revealed last week that state caseworkers had investigated a report of abuse only two months before the girl’s death and Witham-Jordan was a suspect in that abuse. He has now been charged with murder.


The state’s independent child welfare ombudsman also has been critical of the OCFS for failing to remove children from dangerous situations at home.

The latest report says Maine’s rate of recurring maltreatment is 19.6% of its cases in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 – double the national standard of 9.7% or below. That rate has grown steadily in recent years, from 15.4% in FY 18-19 and 16.8% in FY 19-20.

“Totally unacceptable,” said state Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who serves on the Government Oversight Committee, which is investigating child protective services.

The Press Herald requested an interview with OCFS Director Todd Landry on Thursday and Friday to discuss the report, but a spokesperson said he was not available.

Spokesperson Jackie Farwell said in a statement that Maine’s recurring maltreatment rate exceeds the national average because it has a broader definition of maltreatment than other states.

“Maine law and Department policy approaches maltreatment comprehensively, defining it to include both indicated (low/moderate severity) and substantiated (high severity) findings of abuse or neglect,” Farwell said. “This helps to ensure that Maine identifies, reports, and responds to child maltreatment. It also contributes to Maine identifying maltreatment at a higher rate and a higher recurrence rate than other states, as not all states take this approach.”


The report, however, doesn’t indicate that Maine’s high recurrence rate was being driven by a broader definition of maltreatment.

Christine Alberi, the state’s child welfare ombudsman, said she was concerned by increasing rates of recurring maltreatment and the agency’s inability to mitigate risks to children early in a child abuse or neglect investigation. She said the report echoes previous federal reports and her own annual report.

“Initial investigations of child safety, and then ongoing assessment of parents’ progress towards addressing the unsafe behaviors that led to the child welfare involvement in the first place have been consistent challenges for child welfare,” she said. “These two activities are at the heart of any child welfare involvement – has there been enough information gathered to say whether or not a child is unsafe at the beginning of a case? And has enough information been gathered to determine whether or not a child will be safe if they return home?”

Landry has defended the agency’s focus on doing everything it can to make sure children can remain with their parents, citing the challenge of gathering evidence to support a court order to remove a child when parents do not cooperate with an investigation. And in testimony to lawmakers, he has highlighted additional investments and improved training.

But Timberlake said the department needs to reconsider its approach. He agrees that children should stay with their parents whenever possible – but only if it’s safe for them.

“We have to start being not so worried about getting these kids back to their parents, but protecting the kids first,” he said. “These kids don’t know if they’re put in a bad environment or not. We need to worry more about the kids than we do about making sure they’re staying with people who are not taking care of them.”


There has long been friction between those in child protection who advocate for keeping children with families and those who want to be more aggressive in removing children. Increasingly, child abuse and neglect cases are occurring in homes where adults are actively using drugs or are in recent recovery, which can complicate matters.

Other concerns raised in the report include not interviewing parents separately when domestic violence is suspected, a lack of comprehensive, developmentally appropriate conversations with verbal children and a lack of outreach to people who know, care for or interact with nonverbal children.

Melissa Hackett, coordinator of the Maine Child Welfare Action Network, which advocates for systemic changes to improve child safety, said in a written statement that she had not reviewed the report and did not address specific findings. Instead, she called for more supportive services for struggling families.

“We also need to make sure we are considering in these conversations what families need to be safe and stable,” she said. “The child protection system is overburdened because we are not effectively addressing the challenges families are facing. Our focus on strengthening the child welfare system must include how our state and communities support families much sooner to prevent the need for child protective involvement.”

Hackett said that it can take a lot of time for a caseworker to properly understand a family’s struggles and how best to support them, but ongoing workforce shortages and high caseloads are stretching existing staff thin.

“We need to be sure we understand and are responding to what caseworkers need to be best supported in these positions,” she said.


Caseworkers have not provided any formal feedback to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, but individual members say they have had private conversations with them.

A separate report published by an outside consultant in collaboration with the state earlier this year provides some clues about pressures and challenges they face.

Staff said they don’t feel department training is providing them with knowledge or experience to deal with the complexities of being a caseworker. That lack of training is fueling high turnover and makes caseworkers less confident about filing a petition with the court to have a child removed from a dangerous home, according to the Maine Safety Science Model 2022 report.

Nearly one-third of the department’s roughly 425 caseworker positions were vacant, according to the report. Vacancies and high staff turnover have been long-standing problems that predate the current administration.

Staff also feel constrained when assessing the safety of a home. The report states that leadership has directed caseworkers to rely on a computer program to ascertain the risk for abuse or neglect, rather than allowing caseworkers to use their professional knowledge and experience, because the computer program is less subjective and more evidence based.

“This messaging also contributes to staff being reluctant to use overrides and their fear of making a wrong decision,” the report states.


Workers also expressed concerns about high caseloads, pressure to close cases within certain timeframes and other job responsibilities that can make it difficult to meet those timelines, including transporting families.

“Staff reported the pressure to meet these expectations influences their decisions to close investigations without all tasks completed – specifically in investigations where the family is not willing to engage – and to focus on other higher priority tasks,” the report states.

Timberlake said he’s frustrated by the lack of information provided by the department during the oversight committee review process, which was launched in response to four child deaths in the summer of 2021. He said the oversight committee has been working on the issue for two years and he doesn’t feel like they’re making any progress.

“Here we are now, two years later, and we’re not a bit further than the day I made that statement, except we have had all these reports that say how bad we are,” he said.

More attention needs to be paid to the role of middle managers and top agency officials, he said, to ensure that they are implementing policy changes meant to address these issues. He also said supervisors should follow up on reports from caseworkers, who cannot seek to remove a child without the approval of their supervisor and an agency attorney.

“As soon as upper management is held somewhat responsible they will have to react and they will find out who below them isn’t doing their job,” he said.

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